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The Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation scholarship is known among post-secondary students as a life-changing opportunity.

When one scholarship recipient got the call that they were among the 15 chosen for the up to $60,000 a year award to help cover their pricey school tuition, research costs and travel expenses, they “felt this incredible wash of relief.”

“I’m having goosebumps just thinking about it now,” the recipient told the Star. “I couldn’t accept my offer for the PhD program I had gotten into without funding.”

In addition to the nearly $200,000 scholarship for doctoral students, the PETF, created in honour of the late former prime minister it’s named after, has an alumni-list filled with politicians, judges, award-winning authors and journalists. For emerging researchers, it presents an elite network.

“This is regarded as the most prestigious social science doctoral scholarship in the country,” the recipient said. “It could have been so amazing.”

But for them, and several others, it wasn’t.

The Star spoke with 10 past and present members of the PETF, six of whom asked not to be named due to fear of reprisal from the Foundation. They all had a long list of concerns and stories of dysfunction that has led to negative experiences in the program.

They described a culture of fear, cold interactions, insensitivity and heavy reliance on legal action. This has turned what could have been an enriching opportunity into a means to an end — a way to fund their studies.

One of the first people to speak publicly about the turmoil was University of Alberta law professor Ubaka Ogbogu when he tweeted a thread announcing he’d cut ties with the PETF.

Ogbogu wrote on Twitter that he was “forced out” after questioning a new code of conduct put forward by the Foundation that he worried could limit academic freedom, and after criticizing the Foundation for sharing an opinion piece that diminished Black Canadians.

The professor said the past and present members were “incredible,” but the leadership steering the Foundation was another story.

“I am not inclined to be as generous towards the leadership. The penchant for muzzling discourse, branding over substance, bullying, and treating diversity, inclusion and justice as a means to their own ends, is a blemish on the community,” he wrote.

“It’s sad, because I think it’s an incredible community,” Ogbogu said in an interview with the Star. “I think it’s time. The reckoning must come for leadership.”

Ogbogu joined the PETF in 2020 as a fellow — a smaller cohort of about four already established professors who come on board to help guide the scholarship winners.

But just a year into the three-year fellowship, in August 2021, Ogbogu left after getting a glimpse of cracks other members have seen in the Foundation.

He and the other nine members who spoke with the Star describe a consistent conflict: while the Foundation is publicly championing diversity, internally it lacks the cultural sensitivity to support it. The impact, these members say, is that it’s driving scholars away from life-changing opportunities — many sources who spoke to the Star said they wouldn’t recommend the program to friends, particularly those from marginalized backgrounds.

At one conference, a quote from Pierre Elliott Trudeau, “Let us overthrow the totems,” was projected, to the confusion of a number of people in attendance. Totems being an important part of many First Nations cultures.

Soon after joining the Foundation, some members say they were parachuted into mandatory events featuring speakers touting ill-informed views. They were subjected to punishing schedules of events and tasks that in some cases diverted them from work related to their research. One member said every email brings anxiety because they never know what to expect.

Pascale Fournier is an alumni from the 2003 scholar cohort of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation and has been the organization's president and CEO since 2018.

While sources found the PETF community to be enriching and positive, many said the Foundation’s goals seem to be shifting under its current CEO and president, Pascale Fournier.

They’ve noticed an increasing focus on image and branding laced through the Foundation’s activities, but a reduced focused on the substance of the program and the well-being of its scholars, fellows and mentors.

The PETF was created in honour of the late Pierre Elliott Trudeau after he passed away in 2000. The non-partisan Foundation was endowed with $125 million by the federal government in 2002. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was involved with the Foundation between 2002 and 2014, but no longer is. His brother Alexandre Trudeau is a governing member.

The Star reached out to speak with the president about the accusations through TACT Conseil, a Montreal-based public relations firm that represents the Foundation.

In a statement, the vice-chair of the Foundation’s board of directors, Dyane Adam, said the new president was appointed with a mandate “to bring about organizational change and the modernization of the Foundation’s programming and processes” and has the “full confidence” of the board.

“We understand that some people may be reluctant to adjusting to change, which is understandable,” said Adam. “However, it is in the best interest of our Foundation and our community to keep our organization impactful, responsible and accountable, and the vast majority of people welcome the changes that are being made and the promising direction undertaken.”

But Ogbogu and the other members of the community who spoke with the Star say that while the Foundation has shifted to focus on leadership development for its members, publicly championing diversity and encouraging discussion, in practice, it’s tried to silence debate and created an atmosphere that can be hostile for marginalized members.

Ogbogu ultimately left after the Foundation sent around a “Code of Community Engagement” that fellows, scholars and mentors would be asked to sign annually.

Ogbogu had questions. Would funding be contingent on signing for members — and would it impact his ability to speak publicly and candidly about issues that are important to him, such as racism? He also expressed concern that the code seemed like a one-sided contract.

In a statement to the Star, the Foundation’s chief operating officer, Caroline Lin, said: “As an organization with a contractual agreement with its ambassadors, you will surely understand that we expect loyalty and integrity from the individuals who are paid by the Foundation, especially those who have an ambassadorial role.

“We are proud to have researched the best practices around the world and worked in a spirit of extensive consultation before adopting the Code of Community Engagement, which ensures that academic debates are displayed with mutual respect in our interactions with others, including those who disagree with us.”

In the email exchange that ensued with Ogbogu, the Foundation spokesperson shared similar sentiments and confirmed that the code was expected to be signed before stipends were paid. Ogbogu’s questions weren’t directly addressed.

Mary Anne Chambers, a mentor at PETF and co-author of the code, told the Star, “It’s just the way of reminding ourselves what’s expected of us and providing the opportunity to refresh that expectation (so) that we don’t get complacent about how we treat each other.”

But part of what made Ogbogu skeptical about how the code could be used were his experiences over the past year.

Speaking with the Star, the professor talked about times when he felt tokenized as a Black man.

Ogbogu said after George Floyd was murdered, the president gave him a call to seek advice about whether to give Black scholars requested time off from PETF obligations. Being so new and having had few conversations with Fournier prior to this, he said the conversation made him feel uncomfortable and tokenized.

He also said he felt uneasy with the way the Foundation tried to control some conversations, yet platform other offensive conversations under the guise of creating “brave spaces” for debate.

One example was at a virtual event about human rights. The chat function for the audience was disabled when debate was underway. The Foundation explained that it was distracting from the speaker, but Ogbogu said it struck him as “odd” — he didn’t see any insulting comments. “They were challenging the ideas that were (being put) forward,” he said.

Another cause for pause was when the Foundation and its leadership shared some controversial articles online — one was the infamous Harper’s letter defending open debate which was signed by a number of people who have shared anti-trans views, including J.K. Rowling. The president also shared an opinion piece by a PETF alumnus, which claimed the term BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of colour) is ill-suited for Canada, and it should be FIVM (Francophone, Indigenous and visible minority).

Both pieces were widely panned by people advocating racial and gender equity, and Ogbogu chimed in on Twitter regarding the latter:

“Please do not promote/amplify this piece. Or at least criticize or denounce it. It is an odious piece filled with spurious claims that centre whiteness inappropriately while erasing Black people,” he wrote, adding another tweet asking that Black members of the Foundation not be asked to debate this article.

All these interactions and experiences added up, and Ogbogu decided that while he was “sad to leave the community,” he could no longer take part.

Most members who spoke with the Star acknowledged that no institution is perfect, but described their experience with the Foundation as stifling and toxic.

A few mentioned policies that were meant to help members have seemed inadequate, like the Foundation’s mental health policy and sexual harassment policy.

Bernard Soubry, a 2018 scholar, told the Star that he reached out to the Foundation’s leadership when he was going through a challenging time and its mental health policy had been recently announced. When he realized it was an assistance program where scholars could speak with a counsellor from a human resources company once a month, he suggested access to therapy and psychotherapists would be a better way to support members. But he said leadership ignored his suggestion.

Former scholar Cherry Smiley filed a $1.25-million lawsuit against the Foundation in May, after she was allegedly sexually harassed by her mentor, former premier of the Northwest Territories, Stephen Kakfwi, in 2018. Kakfwi spoke with the Star about his recollection of the events, but he did not wish to comment.

The Star reviewed a notice of civil claim filed in British Columbia that states in the process of trying to have the incident addressed Smiley discovered the Foundation had no sexual harassment policy, had difficult interactions with leadership including the current president/CEO, board leaders and outgoing president/CEO, who she says accused her of “blowing things out of proportion.”

The statement of claim says the Foundation attempted to have her sign a nondisclosure agreement (NDA), which the claim says “solely focused on silencing her.” It also says a number of scholars supported her on social media and at least one of them later had their funding pulled.

Kakfwi told the Star the PETF also asked him repeatedly to sign an NDA and he declined.

The allegations in the claim have not been proven in court. Dyane Adam, vice-chair of the board, said the Foundation will contest the claim in court and declined to comment on it.

The Star heard numerous accounts where legal action and contract details were brought up by the Foundation early in disputes, which sources say was a shock.

One incident involved a 2007 scholar, and later staff member, Sarah Kamal. In May 2019 when she was no longer staff, but an alumni member, she tried to organize a celebration for a former colleague who had recently left the Foundation by sending an email to about 16 people to spread the word.

This created friction with the Foundation — it says it was concerned confidential information was not being protected. Later, Kamal was served with a letter from the Foundation’s legal counsel with a slew of demands essentially asking that she stop and hand over the email account created to organize the event, which in part used the Foundation’s name.

“It was shocking ... I did not know what was happening, I thought that this must be a massive misunderstanding,” Kamal said.

She said she reached out to Foundation leaders and a member of the board asking if they could have a dialogue and saying she didn’t understand why lawyers would be involved — surely a 20-minute phone call would solve this problem.

Kamal said the discussion continued to be mediated through legal means for about two months, and they eventually came to an agreement. The event still happened, but in the end only four people showed up. Kamal notes that she thinks the Foundation disputes her version of events.

The Foundation said in a statement that Kamal failed to protect “confidential information.” “In order to safeguard its rights, the Foundation acted quickly and in the best interest of its members.”

When this incident happened, Jason Morris-Jung was part of the alumni society’s executive committee.

“We very much protested the action that was being taken against Sarah, and we certainly protested the litigious way that it was being done,” he said.

Morris-Jung said he and the rest of the sitting executive formally resigned in July 2019, citing differences of opinion over the new direction being proposed for the alumni network — for example, the decision to have the Foundation appoint the committee rather than have it be elected by alumni.

Most of the people who spoke with the Star made a point to say the opportunities provided by the Foundation and the people involved are great, but they worry that the road leadership is taking is souring something that could continue to add significantly to the world of research.

“I worry about the health of the community, especially for junior and marginalized scholars,” one member said. “It’s not much of a supportive environment, if you can’t raise concern.”

Angelyn Francis is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering equity and inequality. Reach her via email: afrancis@thestar.ca
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